MINNEAPOLIS — In the history of Michigan athletics, there are very few moments you can look at and immediately know, “Whoa, that was huge.”
Sure, it’s easy to identify the Bo Schembechler era in football or the Cazzie Russell era in men’s basketball as seminal periods in the development of those programs. But it’s much harder to pinpoint exact moments that altered a team’s immediate future.
I’m talking about perfomances that are cherished, eventually told and retold so many times they become folk tale-esque — The 1969 Michigan-Ohio State football game. Mike Legg’s wraparound goal in hockey. Rumeal Robinson’s championship-winning free throws. Desmond Howard’s Heisman pose. Stories like these, although few and far between, help make up the almost-majestic history of Michigan athletics.
I don’t want to blow the Wolverines’ come-from-behind, NCAA Tournament bid-clinching win over Minnesota out of proportion, but I think it’s one of those games. Ten years of mediocrity and heartache, the looming cloud of severe NCAA sanctions, NIT appearances and tail-spinning into obscurity — none of that matters right now.
For all intents and purposes, the Michigan men’s basketball team, the program that has not reached the Big Dance since 1998, is in the field of 65. After 10 long years, this program has finally taken the big step, the one it hasn’t been able to make since NCAA sanctions ravaged the program so long ago, a step toward legitimacy.
The Wolverines are in.
No more “NIT Dynasty” jokes. No more “maybe next season.” No more “close, but no cigar.” They’re in. I know a win against Iowa on Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament will make a lot of Michigan fans breathe a little easier — but trust me, they’re in. I saw the drive, the determination and the will of this team as it clawed back from a 12-point deficit halfway through the second half Saturday. With that focus, there’s no way the Wolverines are going to slip up against the Hawkeyes.
Michigan can sense the history behind this season.
The Wolverines know how much good for the program can come out of an NCAA Tournament bid — and how much bad could come out of having to wait at least another year for one.
Almost 200 different schools have sent a team to some far-off destination to appear in the NCAA Tournament since Michigan’s last appearance in 1998. The need to suit up for the Big Dance has been, at times, overwhelming, especially for the handful of players destined to bring the Wolverines back to prominence — Daniel Horton, Dion Harris and, most recently, Manny Harris.
Every year Michigan doesn’t make the tournament, it cripples the program more and more. Coming into this year, the Athletic Department practically had to get on its collective hands and knees and beg students to buy tickets.
But that doesn’t matter anymore.
They are in.
Even if the game is at Idaho or Miami or another place that’s a 20-plus hour drive away, and even if the Wolverines bow out in the first round, they made it. They’re in the tournament. That’s all that matters.
Player and coach morale will explode. Student interest will, too. It’ll help recruiting and scheduling and ticket sales. Hell, it’ll even help T-shirt sales. Just getting in, just hearing the name “Michigan” on Selection Sunday, will completely alter the course of Michigan basketball.
It’s the one thing the program needed. It’s the one thing the players — those like fifth-year seniors David Merritt and C.J. Lee — deserved.
“The Duke win was pretty cool, but this is probably my personal No. 1,” Merritt said after the game, reflecting on his career as a Wolverine with a smile on his face.
It’s a lot of people’s No. 1 game. I mean, it’s not every day you clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament — especially if you’re at Michigan.
— Reid has heard there’s nothing to do in Boise, Idaho. One friend told him, “It’s just like Utah, but worse.” Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.